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The Brazilian Sound (3rd edition), by Chris McGowan & Ricardo Pessanha
Review by Reeves Medaglia-Miller, Ph.D.
"In Brazil, music is everywhere. You can find it in a complex rhythmic pattern beaten out by an old man with his fingers on a café table, in the thundering samba that echoes in the streets of Rio in the months prior to Carnaval, and in the bars where a guitar passes from hand to hand and everyone knows all the lyrics to all the classic Brazilian songs played late into the night." (McGowan & Pessanha, 2009, p. 3)
Ethnomusicology... sounds like a really dry subject, right? A bunch of music that I don't understand, explained to me using a bunch of new jargon from some language that I don't understand... right? Wrong. In the brilliant grasp of Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, the study of the many forms of Brazilian popular music is fascinating, intimate, and, yes, even exciting... as it should be.
I am a lifelong music educator and professor of Popular Culture studies at George Brown College in Toronto. I am always in search of texts that will inspire and stimulate my already world-weary students to learn about vital musical forms of which they are unaware, even as they consider important social justice issues such as racism, cultural appropriation, sexism, classism, and so on. I need look no further than The Brazilian Sound.
The Brazilian Sound steps into a time machine and tells a five-hundred year old story of race and of a musical tradition forged from the forced merger of the Brazilian indigenous culture with the culture of its Portuguese conquerors and, then, with the culture of some five million African slaves brought to South America between 1538 and 1850. McGowan and Pessanha explain in compelling detail how the amazing diversity of popular music styles in Brazilian music culture is as a result of both blending and coexistence of many heritages, including at least three major African traditions, and many subcultures within those larger groups.
In the telling of this story, the authors reveal that today's Brazil is undoubtedly more racially tolerant than our North America, with inequities in society being attributable more to differences in class and economic status than to colour. This, they explain, is due to Brazilians seeing race as a "fluid continuum" of identity rather than as a "bipolar" model, the black and white colour scheme prevalent in America. Notably, the authors tell us that, in part due to the enormous scale of the African slave migration, African musical traditions survive in Brazil in a much "purer form" than those found in American music. Nevertheless, McGowan and Pessanha urge the reader to consider Daniel's (1992) assertion that the ugliness of racism "...is a serious problem about which most Brazilians are in perpetual denial."
It is this kind of bravery, tempered with a delicate sensitivity, that is omnipresent in McGowan and Pessanha's fine work, and makes this book invaluable to both music educators and social justice educators. In their thorough exploration of the context of Brazilian popular music, the authors are fearless in their efforts to discuss in full view the race issues surrounding the formation of post-conquest Brazil, issues that are still clearly present in contemporary Brazilian popular music. So, The Brazilian Sound is more than a routine anthropological work, and more than an emotionless ethnographic study. It is a book that speaks frankly and passionately about both the splendid diversity and the social paradoxes of Brazil.
From the early indigenous forms, through the 18th century Portuguese modinha and the concurrent arrival of the Bantu lundu, through the venerated samba, the internationally-popular Bossa Nova tradition (the "new way"), MPB (musica popular brasileira), Brazilian rock forms, and even all the way to contemporary Brazilian electronica, McGowan and Pessanha are meticulous in their devotion to detail. In addition to a remarkable array of data and research, the authors add tremendous depth (and credibility) to The Brazilian Sound through data obtained from their personal interviews of numerous superstars from Brazilian music traditions, including Almeida, Azevedo, Bosco, Brown, Caymmi, Costa, Jobim, Lee, Mendes, Menezes, Nascimento, Porto, and da Viola.
Initially published in 1991, and then again in 1998, The Brazilian Sound is now in its 3rd ("revised and expanded") edition. The new edition adds much that was not available to listeners only a decade ago, including discussion of new works by established composers. However, it is clear that much innovation, both musical and technological, has occurred in a single decade, and McGowan and Pessanha are painstaking in their quest to get us up to speed. In each of chapters seven through nine, important 21st century additions are made to the ongoing narratives of favourite performers and emerging styles, and new millennium artists and post-modern fusion styles are introduced to the scene. In "North by Northeast," the authors provide up-to-date information on the late 90s guitarrada style, and the subsequent technobrega style, that merged Vieira's guitarrada with brega paraense. In "Brazilian Instrumental Music and Jazz," we are updated on the newer post-2000 works of established performers Malta, Vasconcelos, Purim, Santos, and Uakti, but also introduced to beautiful jazz divas Ithamara Koorax and Luciana Souza. In "Tropical Rock," we learn that much has occurred in a brief ten years, including the "world outside Brazil" discovering the rock of Os Mutantes and a partial (sans Rita Lee) reunion of the band in 2006. We learn that Rita Lee herself went on to a post-Os Mutantes triumph ("3001") in 2000, winning a Latin Grammy. We hear the sad final power chords of both RPM and Titas and cry at the death of Cassia Eller, yet witness the rise of young bands Skank, Vanguart, and Los Hermanos.
All of these essential additions would be enough to justify a revised edition of The Brazilian Sound. The authors go on to provide an additional 10th chapter, "More Brazilian Sounds," describing other important genres. There is a fascinating discussion of sertaneja and caipira, the Brazilian equivalents of our C&W and old-time country traditions. It is compelling to learn that Brazil has an indigenous tradition, a Christian music tradition, and even reggae, funk, soul and R&B, hip hop, and electronica styles, just as we have here in North America.
Yet, as promised in my introduction, The Brazilian Sound is a work that not only informs, but also excites. It is filled with exquisite guided visualizations:
"On a hot and humid summer night in Rio de Janeiro, a small stage is packed with dozens of musicians holding assorted drums and percussion instruments, engaged in an escola de samba (samba school) rehearsal. They are inside a colourful, decorated pavilion crowded with people--black, white, brown--who all have one thing in common: the samba" (McGowan & Pessanha, 2009, p. 18).
Such vividly-written passages put the reader right there, seeing the context of the music for themselves, and practically hearing it, too. In a famous Twilight Zone episode, history students marvel at their teacher's seemingly first-hand knowledge of the subject matter, and suspect that he may actually have been present at these historical events. This is the feeling one gets while reading The Brazilian Sound--it is as if the authors were there, telling firsthand their impressions of an abundance of Brazilian history, popular music styles, and cultural achievements. And then, we are reminded that it is true: at least regarding much of the music and musicians of the past few decades, McGowan (a resident of Rio de Janeiro) and Pessanha were and are there, interviewing these music titans face-to-face. Thus, we are there as well, hearing da Viola's own feelings about his beloved music and heritage, or hearing Caymmi describe in his own words his unusual guitar technique. In this respect, The Brazilian Sound is not just an exciting carnaval or a colourful escola de samba. It is a rare gift... a unique privilege.
In my view, The Brazilian Sound is much more than a textbook filled with a vast wealth of information. It is among the most energetic, essential books available in the field of music studies... a joy from começo to conclusão.
Daniel, G. Reginald (1992). "Multiethnic Populations in the United States and Brazil," UCLA ISOP Intercom 14, no. 7 (January 15, 1992): 1-5.
McGowan, Chris, & Ricardo Pessanha (2009). The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil, revised 3rd edition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.